Twelve Questions with Mike Ballantyne

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By Sarah Stuart 5:30 AM Thursday Jan 24, 2013 –

Mike Ballantyne owns under-the-radar Kiwi internet business Online Republic, a stable of 3500 travel booking websites with a staff of 100 and a turnover of $170 million predicted this year.



1. Who taught you the business of online marketing?

I was an experienced marketeer after 15 years in the ad business. But when I started this business with my brother Paul in 2004, neither of us knew the first thing about search engine marketing. After being taken for a $9000 ride by an SEO [search engine optimisation] company, I bought a $40 book, Google Adwords for Dummies. I put up some ads on Google and the bookings started flowing in. Then we hired our first online marketing expert.

2. What were the childhood lessons that aided your success?

I learned I could compete with my two older brothers by playing cricket in the driveway. I remain fiercely competitive in my business life and have an inherent belief that we can compete and outperform any competitor in our vehicle rental and cruise holiday categories, even the bigger multibillion-dollar US travel businesses. I learned from Mum and Dad the importance of giving. Dad didn’t have a big income but Mum and Dad spent significant amounts of time helping others and gave a portion of the family income away.

3. Do you think Kiwis make better or worse entrepreneurs than other nationalities?

Better and worse. Better in the sense we are resourceful and innovative with the little that we often have – we think outside the box and do incredible things on limited budgets. We are unafraid of giving an idea a crack, even if the odds are stacked against us. Where we often fall down is we get something good going, but lack the big vision. Most business owners are happy to cash in and go fishing when the turnover’s a few million. In the United States, entrepreneurs aim for a billion.

4. Can you teach entrepreneurship?

Well, I believe being entrepreneurial starts with a drive to better yourself and a dissatisfaction of spending your life working for someone else. Can you teach that? I’m not sure. My advice is, if you have the desire to start a business, don’t obsess over finding the right idea in the early days. Start something small, see if there is a market for it, learn from your mistakes. Gather skills so you know how to make the right idea succeed when it comes along.

5. What’s the most exorbitant thing you have spent your money on?

A Colin McCahon painting which looks like a smeared white blob on a large black canvas. It’s enormously special to my wife and I. It’s one of McCahon’s Comet series, and is a constant reminder of my late brother Paul, who was described by a friend as a comet shooting through this world in a hurry but leaving a long lasting impact. When my oldest daughter saw the painting she said she could do a better picture.

6. What will you teach your children about money?

Although they are only 9 and 6, we are already teaching them about money. You can’t have something until you save for it with your pocket money. You get pocket money for work. Work isn’t always enjoyable, but it contributes to the success and happiness of the family.

7. Your brother Paul, who was your business partner, died in 2011. How did that affect you?

I felt a profound sense of loss when he died. I had watched my mum battle cancer for 28 years. Paul died within six months of being diagnosed with melanoma. I miss him every day. Outside of my wife and kids, he was my best friend, and a hugely talented business partner.

8. If you could change one thing about New Zealand today, what would it be?

Well I can’t do much about the hole in the ozone that is killing so many Kiwis like my brother, so I would pass a law that put a limit on interest-free offer advertising. Buying a TV with five years’ interest free is ludicrous. We need to stop spending what we don’t have.

9. How’s your work/life balance?

I don’t get to work till 9.30am or 10am, so I can help my wife get the kids ready. I mostly turn my phone off when I get home at 6.30. I have taken the family on two business trips to the UK. Family is much more important to me than work.

10. You first studied fashion design … how are the threads these days?

I was a lousy pattern maker, so I haven’t been near a sewing machine in more than 20 years. I enjoy well-made, well-cut garments, unlike the kind I could make.

11. What are the most enjoyable trappings of your success?

I like nice things but ultimately they don’t mean much to me. I learned this from my brother. In his final days, he wanted little more than to lie in a field with no worries or pain and watch the clouds, but he was too ill to get out of bed. He had money and nice things, but what he wanted was not available to him. I’m not saying the nice house and car aren’t satisfying benefits of success, but they need to be kept in perspective.

12. Kim Dotcom. Please explain.

I think he’s a brilliant marketeer. He really knows how to get the media agenda and he’s won over the people of New Zealand and I respect him for that.

Brad has spent many years working on client side, developing digital strategies and managing teams to implement those strategies. He understands the challenges and priorities from an online marketer’s perspective ­ the high targets, tight budgets and the education required to gain internal buy ­in to digital strategies. He also likes riding his Mt bike and telling stories about all the mountains he has climbed before becoming a Dad.

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